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A fierce critic of the SA government’s approach towards the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown, actuary Nick Hudson of Pandemic Data and Analytics (PANDA) forecasts that the Western Cape will reach herd immunity within a month. Hudson has conducted research into the country’s rate of infection, studying the trends around the hotspots which include the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Gauteng. He joins BizNews founder Alec Hogg to contemplate how his research has panned out, as he predicted, and to examine how SA is past its peak of Covid-19 deaths – Bernice Maune
Well, good afternoon, I’m Alec Hogg. This is Rational Radio. Next up is another gentleman we’ve spoken to fairly often: Nick Hudson. Nick, thank you. Also from our part of the world, aren’t you originally from KwaZulu-Natal?
Good morning. I was born in East London. I’m a Border man rather than Cape Town.
But I think we’re also African at the end of the day. But it’s just nice for those of us from KZN to raise our heads. We are celebrating Mark Bristow, of course, the chief executive of Barrick Gold. And I know you’ve heard a little bit about Warren Buffett deciding to buy gold for the first time in his life.
We put it down to the fact that he is an Estcourt boy now who’s actually running the company. But you’ve been on the money with PANDA. I had a lovely interview with Magda Wierzycka a little while ago. And she says the only people who’ve been telling the truth and getting it right is PANDA. I was listening this morning to Frans Cronje from the Institute of Race Relations.
And he says the only guys who are calling this accurately, are PANDA. In fact, he said it’s public knowledge for their clients. Everybody else really should be embarrassed about the way that they’ve been striking out on the projections. Are you happy now that we starting to get some kind of realisation that the facts have changed and that minds need to change as a result?
Look the improvement is always good, but it’s just such a bitter disappointment that it’s taken so long. I mean, to be fair, both those people, Magda and Frans have been supporters from the very beginning. So they were not people who recently changed their minds. But, you know, the reality is that we’ve just destroyed our economy for no good reason.
And I find this tragic, very sad.
Look, the other good news is that the Western Cape epidemic trend has gone exactly according to our forecast, and now coronavirus is well on its way out. We’re close to functional herd immunity in the Western Cape right now, which means that all of the stuff should be stopping. There’s no disaster. Basically, you’ve got a state of disaster, but no disaster. Put another way, the only disaster in this country is the lockdown.
What is herd immunity? What level do we need to get to in South Africa? When can we believe that we have herd immunity here?
The reality is that we’ve just destroyed our economy for no good reason
So it’s definitely worth having a little chat about that, because there are some misconceptions out there that I keep on hearing time and time again on the radio. I read them in the papers and sigh. Herd immunity is a concept of the threshold that you reach where there are sufficient people who have recovered from the disease and therefore have a level of immunity so that the disease stops circulating and just gradually wanes to almost zero, I’m going to put it on the screen. So what I’m going to show your viewers, is the Western Cape curve that we set up on 10 June.
That’s just in two months. That’s actually nine weeks, and things have evolved exactly as that curve predicted. You will see there that we’re probably down to 25% off the original peak levels. So that means 28 days ago that the infections were heavily down from their peak and in 28 days time we’ll be at single-digit numbers, to all intents and purposes, coronavirus will no longer feature in the Western Cape at all.
And that tells you just how drastically expensive the crazy modelling has been. Because I heard at the end of last week that the Western Cape has opened, another field hospital, which under a six-month lease is probably millions of rands. And that thing will never see a single patient. They’re just not going to be used. So why there’s confusion about this is that elsewhere in the world, the point we were making with that estimate is the first really big upward blip that you see on the charts. Well, before the peak, this chart very accurately forecasts the peak and the decline. So all of you know, that’s right where your money was. All of that has evolved since the chart was published.
Explain exactly what the blue line is and what the orange line is.
So the orange line has your actual dates, your actual daily deaths and the blue lines are forecast intervals. So we said this is where the dates are going to vary between those two lines on a daily basis.
Is this an actuarial process? I mean, you’re an actuary. Is this what you guys as actuaries would put together?
It’s so simple. It’s not even really actuarial in any way, shape or form. It’s a fit of a very simple class of distributions that only have two functional parameters. And it’s just a simple statistical distribution. And the credit for this work needs to go to Professor Michael Levitt of Stanford University. He was the one who observed that this class of distributions is fitting the epidemic worldwide. And so we simply picked that up, confirmed his observation, which was an astonishing one to us. And just set about using them. And it’s dead simple. You can do this with matric maths and a spreadsheet.
So when you have a look at the blue line, so the blue line, you say here, it predicted that around the 1st of July, is this correct that we would have had the peak of deaths in South Africa?
That’s not South Africa. That’s the Western Cape.
And the bottom line had started earlier. And you can see the actual peak in the Western Cape. We estimated it to be around the 24th or 21st of June.
I think we understand. And the line has followed in the Western Cape pretty much. Well, this suggests that. What about the rest of South Africa?
It’s a little bit earlier. You can find curves like this on our website and a feed that is updated continually for all the major provinces.
And they also doing fine. They’re just at an earlier stage. So the Eastern Cape has passed its peak. Probably Gauteng has passed its peak, KwaZulu-Natal has a little way to go still. But South Africa’s passed its peak. So the thing’s on its way out. But the point I was getting to is that there’s this confusion.
What happens is all around the world, people have conducted these Covid tests where they’re looking for antibodies in people’s blood to see how many people were actually infected. And they keep on coming up with numbers in the range of, say, 15 to 25%. And textbook herd immunity is thought to be struck at 60 to 70%. But what’s being missed here, the science is in on it now.
To all intents and purposes, coronavirus will no longer feature in the Western Cape at all
We speculated about this as early as March this year, that many people who get this disease get it out of their systems without even generating antibodies. There are two layers to the human immune system if I can just put it in very simple terms. There’s a cellular immunity layer. And then there’s a humoral immunity layer. And it’s that humoral immunity layer that involves antibodies. Cellular immunity doesn’t involve antibodies. And a lot of people just get a topical infection that you’re with at the level of cellular immunity, and they will never test positive for antibodies.
And so that group of people is large, potentially much bigger than the group of people who develop antibodies. And so you’re just failing to detect a huge group of infections. That’s part one of the story. And then part two is that in the real world, you don’t require 60 or 70% because people don’t move around.
Random groups of people do not interact with each other on a day to day basis. And if you allow for that kind of feature of population interaction, then you bring the total level of infection required in order to get to herd immunity down by quite a lot.
There’s another issue as well relating to the heterogeneity of susceptibility. These are big words but it means that basically some people are different. They’re not all at the same risk. So these are the three issues that are going on. The T cell immunity or cellular immunity that most people are using to keep the virus or get the virus out of their systems, which involves a very mild defence of course. Most of those people will not even be aware that they were infected.
So that’s number one. Number two, the heterogeneity of susceptibility.
And then number three, the fact that we don’t move around in Brownian motion, we don’t bump into random people. My chances of bumping into Cyril Ramaphosa are zero.
With your track record, perhaps you should be bumping into him sometime soon. Nick, just to close off, I had a rather irate correspondent who said, having read the Daily Maverick piece, and then they reference the Financial Times and The New York Times to say that excess deaths in South Africa are showing that we probably undercounting the Covid-19 deaths and the excess deaths have risen quite significantly. What’s your response to that argument?
I think some of the excess deaths will be Covid deaths. I’ll be surprised if it turns out to be many.
I think when we see the age breakdown, you will find that there are lots of deaths in the under 40 category. And that would be a sure, sure, sign that we’re not talking about coronavirus deaths.
This disease is just not dangerous in any material way to people under the age of 40. It affects a handful of people with severe commodities and who are already at risk in that age group.
So if there are deaths, especially if they’re neonatal deaths, that’ll be the give away as neonatal deaths and deaths in women between the ages of 15 and 29, are all signs that things are going wrong economically. Nutrition is going down, circulating communicable diseases are going up.
So, yeah, could there be some coronavirus amongst those excess deaths? Yes, I think it could be. But also remember that there are some non-coronavirus deaths in our official numbers for coronavirus that’s been a feature worldwide. A very interesting study was done recently of the Swedish nursing homes in a certain part of Sweden found that only 15 % of the actual recorded coronavirus deaths had coronavirus as the primary cause of death.
As the primary cause. Okay. Well, I think what you’re telling us is that we need to see the data. We need to see more information before we get out of it.
And I hope it doesn’t take another PAIA (Promotion of Access to Information Act) application. They should just be publishing that right now. There’s no reason not to.
Hudson, thanks, as always, for sharing your wisdom and your insights with us. Very, very brave. The way you guys at PANDA came out, went completely against the flow. But as mentioned right at the beginning of this interview, you’re getting the plaudits from those who matter. So thanks again.
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